Tuesday, December 30, 2008

In Defense of...Body of Lies (and War on Terror movies in general)

Recently, fellow FilmStager Jordan Raup posted his "Top 5 Disappointments of 2008," Ridley Scott's Body of Lies in the #4 position. I have finally seen the film and I have to respectly disagree with this criticism. Jordan wrote of the film: "I have seen all this before." While I see what he means in respect to the plot and its general coherence to the "spy thriller" genre, some of the stuff in this movie I have never seen offered up n the way it was before. In general, William Monahan's (who wrote The Departed) screenplay is a combination of several different films, ranging from Sydney Pollock's (R.I.P sir) 1970's paranoia thriller Three Days of the Condor to Steven Gaghan's masterful Syriana. However, Lies properly captures both the abundance and lack of information in today's military world. Everybody, it appears, knows everything, so nobody knows anything. Consider the title; what's a lie if it's true in the eyes of the person you're telling it to? And vice versa? Leo DiCaprio's Roger Ferris must combat with this ambiguity and universal lack of trust throughout the entire film, and he pays for it. Meanwhile, Russell Crowe's Ed Hoffman remains stateside, taking his kids to school and eating bowls of cereal while setting up espionage operations that overlap Ferris's groud operations, creating an ironic warzone built by two people from the same side. This eventually depreciates into the film's biggest point: what sides? When Ferris creates a fictional terroirist group using only hair dye, fast thinking and help from an American government computer whiz, convincing everyone that it is real in order to catch another real terroist group, what is he acheiving? What side is he on?

Granted, Monahan comes up WAY sort at the tail end, choosing to go one way when the film would've most likely been in my top 5 had he gone the other, but do not let this discount the rest of this film. The acting is good (not great - even Leo looks too professional here, only Mark Strong gives a memorable performance as the shady Jordanian Hani), but these characters are only pawns anyway. Had viewers cared about the pawns, the film would have been as good as Syriana, but just because they don't doesn't take away from the complicated message about this war we're fighting, and who exactly we are fighting anymore. As Hoffman says throughout: "Nobody's innocent in this war."

As for the rest of these "War on Terror" films, I'll admit they've been lacking in general. Good premises (Stop-Loss) are crippled by poor execution and solid acting (Lions for Lambs) is crippled by ineffective premises. Movies that should've been this generation's Deer Hunter (Haggis' In the Valley of Elah) play out more artificially than Heaven's Gate. Hell, even movies about older wars feel contrived. I'm looking at you Valkyrie.

Why does his continue to happen?

Instead of asking this question, simply consider another genre: non-fiction. While no one was looking, ambitious reseach filmmakers have given us documentaries 10 times better than The Deer Hunter ever was. Consider No End in Sight, Why We Fight or the 2007 Oscar winner Taxi to the Dark Side. These films are the product of facts that would have been untouchable during Vietnam and presented using filmmaking techniques that were not available 30 years ago.

These films touch on things that are far more important than Leo running through Iraq or Russell Crowe pretending to be a C.I.A mastermind. The real masterminds are getting interviews in these documentaries and try to explain themselves. Now, that's entertainment.

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